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Lead (Blood)

Does this test have other names?

Serum lead level, BLL

What is this test?

This test measures the amount of lead in your child's blood. It can find out whether your child has been exposed to lead.

Before 1978, lead was a major ingredient in household paint. It still can be found in older homes and in the soil around them. Children can inhale lead dust or chew on items that use lead-based paint. No safe lead blood level for children has been identified. High levels of lead in the blood can be toxic.  

Why does my child need this test?

Your child may need this test because children under the age of 6 are at particular risk for lead poisoning. Young children can put their hands on objects that may be contaminated with lead and then put their hands in their mouths. In addition, children living at or below the poverty level and those living in older housing are also at a higher risk for lead poisoning. If you live in a home built before 1978, your healthcare provider might order this test to see if your child has been exposed to lead. Children also are tested for lead if they have signs and symptoms of lead poisoning, including:

  • Belly pain

  • Anemia, or low red blood cell counts

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Weight loss

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Muscle weakness

  • Seizures

  • Headache

  • Hair loss

  • Difficulty paying attention, behavior changes, or learning disabilities

This test is also used to see if treatment for lead poisoning is working.

What other tests might my child have along with this test?

If your child has higher than normal lead levels, the healthcare provider might order a complete blood count to check for anemia, a condition in which the red blood count is low. If your child has anemia, his or her body may not get enough oxygen.

Your child may also have these blood tests:

  • Reticulocyte count

  • Serum iron

  • Total iron-binding capacity

  • Ferritin

For children who need treatment for lead poisoning, more tests may be needed to see if their kidneys and liver are working the way they should. These tests include:

  • Serum electrolytes

  • Blood urea nitrogen

  • Creatinine

  • Calcium

  • Magnesium

  • Liver function tests

  • Urinalysis

What do my child's test results mean?

Test results may vary depending on your child's age, gender, health history, the method used for the test, and other things. Your test results may not mean your child has a problem. Ask your healthcare provider what your child's test results mean for you. 

A test result greater than 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) is high and may mean your child has lead poisoning. The higher the level of lead in your child's blood, the greater the risk of learning disabilities, impaired growth, and kidney and nerve damage.

How is this test done?

The test is done with a blood sample, which is drawn through a needle from a vein in your child's arm. Blood samples from infants and children may also be collected by a finger stick. If test results from a finger stick are abnormal, a blood draw from a vein is usually done to confirm the results.

Does this test pose any risks?

Having a blood test with a needle carries some risks. These include bleeding, infection, bruising, and feeling lightheaded. When the needle pricks your child's arm or finger, she or he may feel a slight sting or pain. Afterward, the site may be sore. 

What might affect my child's test results?

The test results reflect only recent exposure to lead.

Your child may get a false test result if:

  • Blood is taken from your child's finger and he or she has dust or dirt on his or her hands.

  • Your child is not getting enough calcium, iron, and vitamin C and eating too much fat.

How do I get my child ready for this test?

Your child doesn't need to prepare for this test. Be sure your healthcare provider knows about all medicines, herbs, vitamins, and supplements your child is taking. This includes medicines that don't need a prescription and any illicit drugs that your child may use. 

Medical Reviewers:

  • Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
  • Haldeman-Englert, Chad, MD